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Prosecuting a prosecutor poses conflict in New Jersey

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NEW JERSEY (PIX11) — The New Jersey Attorney General’s Division of Criminal Justice has a bit of a conflict on its hands.  It’s going to oversee prosecution of a case it supposedly investigated and in which it found no criminal wrongdoing.

Back in March, the DCJ said there was no basis to prosecute anyone in the Bergen County Prosecutor’s office for criminal activity stemming from two auctions featuring bogus signed sports memorabilia. The material had been seized from a drug store owner who had been laundering ill-gotten gains by purchasing the items.

The DCJ got involved after a PIX11 investigation found Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli’s office made false statements in an official document in order to hire Molinelli’s chosen autograph “authenticator” with a no bid $10,000 contract.  Molinelli has said the two auctions, in May and September, raised almost $50,000 for his seized asset forfeiture fund.  Over his tenure as prosecutor he’s used that fund to distribute millions of dollars to his preferred public projects in the county.

RELATED:Bergen County prosecutor used false document to sell bogus memorabilia

Molinelli maintained he did nothing wrong but ultimately offered refunds to all auction purchasers.

The false statements were used to show that Molinelli’s chosen authenticator, Drew Max of AAU, (Authentic Autographs Unlimited) in Las Vegas was needed because others would not simply authenticate without also conducting the actual auction.  However, one of the people supposedly contacted by the prosecutor’s office told PIX11 the conversation never happened. Another, Joe Orlando of PSA/DNA in Santa Ana, CA told us his company only authenticates. It doesn’t have an auction division despite statements to the contrary in the document created by the prosecutor’s office.

Although the DCJ lead investigator Lt. Stanley Beet found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, the investigation did not include interviews with any of the potential witnesses cited in PIX11 stories.  Then in Hackensack, in late April, Presiding Judge of Municipal Court Roy McGeady found probable cause exists to prosecute the person who authored the memo containing the false statements.  That’s Molinelli’s top assistant, First Executive Assistant Prosecutor, Frank Puccio.

Puccio has signed the memo but PIX 11 has learned that he did not gather the information on which it was based.  He may have just been the writer and may have relied on information furnished by others.  According to calendar notes retained by PSA/DNA, Joe Orlando spoke with two people from the prosecutor’s office, Deputy Executive Assistant Prosecutor David Nathanson and Prosecutor Molinelli himself.

Because Puccio works for Bergen County, there is an obvious conflict in his being prosecuted there.   In a letter signed by First Assistant Prosecutor John L. Higgins III, Molinelli asked the Attorney General’s office to take over the case.

Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia Valdes has agreed to handle the prosecution.  But the Assistant Passaic County Prosecutor who gets the case must be sworn in as Special Deputy Attorney General, according to a letter from Deputy Attorney General Analisa Sama Holmes. That means the AG’s office will now be overseeing a case it previously determined shouldn’t be prosecuted.

We’ll keep following this.